- Charlotte Brontë:Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
I wrote on Charlotte Brontë early in my career—in Charlotte Brontë and Sexuality (1984)—then, much later, on the religion of the Brontë sisters for the Cambridge companion. I recently finished a study of the Brontë sisters' poetry for the Blackwell-Wiley companion. Unlike with my work on Robert Browning, I did almost no reviewing and never responded to criticisms of my positions. What a chance of a lifetime to do so now! But seriously, I should begin by saying I never had a problem with the great diversity of responses to sexual issues in Charlotte Brontë. If I was part of the generation of Steven Marcus and Michel Foucault, who found sexuality very prominent in what had too often been treated as a prudishly repressed world, I was also sympathetic with the great variety of views of Charlotte that established her work at the centre of Victorian studies and studies of the novel.
Invited to look back as well as forward, I do have some points to make on this work on Charlotte and sexuality as well as one point in Charlotte's biography—as unpleasant a subject as her death—as well as comments on New Historical Brontë and on the Brontë sisters' religion. Let me begin by admitting my age: I had not even been asked to read Charlotte Brontë in old historical Harvard where I studied. She was looked on as some kind of teen reading best studied in undergraduate courses, if at all. After I took [End Page 250] my degree and became an assistant professor, I read her one day out of curiosity—Jane Eyre, of course. To my surprise, I was bowled over (imagine anyone in that position today, reading her then and only then finding out, without any supporting critical tradition, her power). I then read her other works and was knocked out by Villette. Eventually I had the good fortune to take up a Guggenheim-supported study of Victorian sexuality, and Charlotte was one of my writers. But as I got further into studying her, what had begun as a work on a variety of Victorian writers became an entire book on her. It was on sexuality, but it was as much about the strength of her work that had struck me so strongly, if so belatedly. And it was aimed at indicating how seriously I thought she should be placed in the history of the novel, as a diptych with Austen. I had known the well-recognized power of her sister Emily's single masterpiece, but I was prepared to place Charlotte as highly for her own different excellence, especially for her masterpieces, Jane Eyre and Villette, the first then underrated, the second almost unnoticed.
charlotte and sexuality
The flood of exceptional studies of Charlotte that took place in the latter part of the twentieth century was a wonderful confirmation of my judgment of her importance, though I take credit only for being among the first to restate her position. Doubtless the most influential was the ground-breaking feminist critical work of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who of course put Charlotte at the centre of their great study, The Madwoman in the Attic. Since that period, Charlotte has been central to the canon, though Emily has probably not suffered in her unique position as author of one world-class novel, even as her sister became more discussed and more at the centre of critical issues in Victorian and English studies. Some of that work was focused on postcolonial issues, originating in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's fine 1985 essay, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism." Other work has been on subjects as diverse as Charlotte Brontë's World of Death (Keefe)—if life and sex, then of course death—on social issues (even the great Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, who, in Myths of Power, looked at the Brontës as a group), or on Victorian psychology in her work (Shuttleworth 1989, 1996), on the Brontës' religion (Thormählen), and so on. But the greatest discussion focused, I believe, on issues of sex, soon rightly distinguished...